You Kids Get Those Drones out of my Airspace!

The PacTec Security Conference in Tokyo had something interesting show up. A countermeasure against drones that allows you to take control of any craft using the popular DSMx protocol. According to Ars Technica, DSMx transmitters and receivers exchange a key to prevent interference between adjacent systems. The key isn’t protected very well so by observing traffic and applying a little brute force, you can recover the key (which is set when the transmitter binds to the aircraft).

What’s more is a timing vulnerability allows the rogue transmitter to lock out the legitimate one. You can see a demonstration of the system, called Icarus, in the video below.

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Umbrella Drones — Jellyfish Of The Sky

Mount an umbrella to a drone and there you go, you have a flying umbrella. When [Alan Kwan] tried to do just that he found it wasn’t quite so simple. The result, once he’d worked it out though, is haunting. You get an uneasy feeling like you’re underwater watching jellyfish floating around you.

A grad student in MIT’s ACT (Art, Culture and Technology) program, [Alan’s] idea was to produce a synesthesia-like result in the viewer by having an inanimate object, an umbrella, appear as an animate object, a floating jellyfish. He first tried simply attaching the umbrella to an off-the-shelf drone. Since electronics occupy the center of the drone, the umbrella had to be mounted off-center. But he discovered that drones want most of their mass in the center and so that didn’t work. With the help of a classmate and input from peers and faculty he made a new drone with carbon fiber and metal parts that allowed him to mount the umbrella in the center. To further help with stability, the batteries were attached to the very bottom of the umbrella’s pole.

In addition to just making them fly, [Alan] also wanted the umbrella to gently undulate like a jellyfish, slowly opening and closing a little. He tried mounting servo motors inside the umbrella for the task. These turned out to be too heavy, but also unnecessary. Once flying outside at just the right propeller speed, the umbrellas undulated on their own. Watch them doing this in the video below accompanied by haunting music that makes you feel you’re watching a scene from Blade Runner.

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Party Drone Comes up Roses

[Nicomedia] (a team of two) built a payload for their drone with two distinct purposes: to allow it to drop things like rose petals and to fire off fireworks. Honestly, while it is a cool idea, we are a little worried that dropping things from a height might not be a good idea (although rose petals are probably OK) and lighting off fireworks from a drone didn’t seem like a good idea at all. If you want to reproduce this, you probably need to make sure either of these things are legal in your part of the planet.

In the video below, you can see the effect. A servo tied to the drone’s controller opens the box to release the payload. In this case, the team didn’t have a spare channel so they used a separate controller, but if you had a spare channel on the flight controller, that would probably be better.

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When LEGO Flies

Building your own drone is a common enough pursuit among Hackaday readers. There are quite a few LEGO enthusiasts around, too. A company named Flybrix wants to marry those two pursuits and is offering a kit that allows you to build your drone out of LEGO bricks.

The company isn’t affiliated with LEGO. The kits look like they have some pretty common motors and control hardware. There are a few custom pieces, but the real key appears to be a LEGO compatible mount for the motors. You can see a video about the kit, below.

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A Brief History Of ‘Drone’

In the early 1930s, Reginald Denny, an English actor living in Los Angeles, stumbled upon a young boy flying a rubber band-powered airplane. After attempting to help the boy by adjusting the rubber and control surfaces, the plane spun into the ground. Denny promised he would build another plane for the boy, and wrote to a New York model manufacturer for a kit. This first model airplane kit grew into his own hobby shop on Hollywood Boulevard, frequented by Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda.

The business blossomed into Radioplane Co. Inc., where Denny designed and built the first remote controlled military aircraft used by the United States. In 1944, Captain Ronald Reagan of the Army Air Forces’ Motion Picture unit wanted some film of these new flying targets and sent photographer David Conover to the Radioplane factory at the Van Nuys airport. There, Conover met Norma Jeane Dougherty and convinced her to go into modeling. She would later be known as Marilyn Monroe. The nexus of all American culture from 1930 to 1960 was a hobby shop that smelled of balsa sawdust and airplane glue. That hobby shop is now a 7-Eleven just off the 101 freeway.

Science historian James Burke had a TV wonderful show in the early 90s – Connections – where the previous paragraphs would be par for the course. Unfortunately, the timbre of public discourse has changed in the last twenty years and the worldwide revolution in communications allowing people to instantaneously exchange ideas has only led to people instantaneously exchanging opinions. The story of how the Dutch East India Company led to the rubber band led to Jimmy Stewart led to remote control led to Ronald Reagan led to Death of a Salesman has a modern fault: I’d have to use the word ‘drone’.

The word ‘propaganda’ only gained its negative connotation the late 1930s – it’s now ‘public relations’. The phrase ‘global warming’ doesn’t work with idiots in winter, so now it’s called ‘climate change’. Likewise, quadcopter pilots don’t want anyone to think their flying machine can rain hellfire missiles down on a neighborhood, so ‘drone’ is verboten. The preferred term is quadcopters, tricopters, multicopters, flying wings, fixed-wing remote-controlled vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, or toys.

I’m slightly annoyed by this and by the reminder I kindly get in my inbox every time I use the dreaded d-word. The etymology of the word ‘drone’ has nothing to do with spying, firing missiles into hospitals, or illegally killing American civilians. People like to argue, though, and I need something to point to when someone complains about my misuse of the word ‘drone’. Instead of an article on Hollywood starlets, the first remote control systems, and model aviation, you get an article on the etymology of a word. You have no one else to blame but yourself, Internet.

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Don’t Like the FAA’s Drone Registration? Sue Them!

When the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring registration of quadcopters (“drones”) in the US, it took a number of hobbyists by surprise. After all, the FAA regulates real 747s, not model airplanes. [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist, has done what you do when faced with a law that you believe is unjust: he’s filed a lawsuit in the DC District Court, claiming that the FAA has overstepped their mandate.

Which one is the "aircraft"?
Which one is the “aircraft”?

The lawsuit will hinge (as legal battles often do) on the interpretation of words. The FAA’s interpretation of quadcopters to be “aircraft” rather than toys is at the center of the dispute. Putting hobbyists into a catch-22, the FAA also requires recreational RC pilots to stay under a height of 400 feet, while requiring “aircraft” to stay above 500 feet except for emergencies, take-off, or landing. Which do they mean?

The editorial staff at Hackaday is divided about whether the FAA ruling makes no sense at all or is simply making hobbyists “sign their EULA“. This writer has spent enough time inside the Beltway to know an expanse of a mandate when he sees it, and no matter which body of the US government is to blame, regulating toy planes and helicopters as if they were commercial aircraft is an over-reach. Even if the intentions are benign, it’s a poorly thought-out ruling and should be revisited.

If you agree, you now have the chance to put your money where your mouth is. The DC Area Drone User Group is putting together a legal defense fund to push [Taylor]’s case. Nobody would be cynical enough to suggest that one can buy the legal system in the US, but, paraphrasing Diamond Dave, it sure as heck can buy a good enough lawyer to get the law changed.

Canary Island Team Wins World Robotic Sailing 2016

If you’re like us, you had no idea that there even was a World Robotic Sailing Championship. But we’re glad that we do now! And congratulations to the team of A-Tirma G2, the winning boat. (Link in Spanish, difficult to translate — if you can figure out how, post in the comments?)

The Championship has apparently been going on for nine years now, and moves to a different location around the world each year. The contests for 2016 (PDF) are by no means trivial. Besides a simple there-and-back regatta, the robot boats have to hold position, scan a prescribed area, and avoid a big obstacle and return quickly back to their lane. All of this with wind power, of course.

The winning boat used solid sails, which act essentially as vertical wings, and was designed for rough weather. This paid off in the area-scanning test; the winds were so strong that the organizers considered calling it off, but team A-Tirma’s boat navigated flawlessly, giving them enough points to win the event even though camera malfunction kept them from completing the obstacle avoidance.

stationkeepingtrackingUnless you’ve sailed, it’s hard to appreciate the difficulty of these challenges to an autonomous vehicle. It’s incredibly hard to plan far ahead because the boat’s motive power source, the wind, isn’t constant. But the boat has, relatively speaking, a lot of inertia and no brakes, so the robot has to plan fairly far in advance. That any of the 2-4 meter long boats could stay inside a circle of 20 meters is impressive. Oh, and did we mention that A-Tirma did all of this calculating and reacting on solar power?

Because the wind is so fickle, drone sailboats are much less popular than drone motorboats — at least using the Hackaday Blogpost Metric ™. The hackerboat project is trying out sails, but they’re still mostly working on powered propulsion. We do have an entry in the 2016 Hackaday Prize, but it’s looking like the development process is in the doldrums. Still, sailing is the best way to go in the end, because windpower is essentially free on the open ocean, which means less work for the solar panels.

As far as role-models go, you’ve basically got the entrants in the World Robotic Sailing Championships. So kudos to the A-Tirma team, and thanks [Nikito] for the tip!